Tag: Shamrock

Questions and Answers:Advice and Information Columns

If the term ‘information society’ has any useful meaning as a way to describe 21stC life (and of course it generally doesn’t, especially in the way most politicians use it), then it is in the way it captures the extraordinary availability of apparently limitless factual information. Only a generation ago, a person finding themselves in need of a particular date, definition or explanation was entirely reliant upon reference books of some kind or another – most likely the print editions of encyclopaedias which have now largely been replaced by Wikipedia and its more sophisticated but pay walled competitors. Even the condensed single-volume editions of publications such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica were expensive, and a full set of encyclopaedias was so costly that companies sold them via long-term hire-purchase schemes. This was such an embedded feature of aspirational working-class life in many countries until the later 20thC that door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen frequently occur as stock characters in movies, novels and comedy sketches. The fact that so many families could be persuaded to make a significant financial investment in these rarely-used and rapidly dating books was a testament to the value – economically and culturally – of the information they contained. The queries we check on our phones while waiting for a train, or the information we receive in daily Google alerts as we sit at our desks, were until very recently expensive and scarce commodities, with entire industries and professions constructed around their gathering, publication and distribution. Because reference books were so expensive, most ordinary people would have relied upon libraries in order to consult them, and for many working-class readers whose formal education had ended early by necessity, Carnegie Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes opened up a world of auto-didacticism which was often life-changing.

But even these resources were not available to many people – libraries can be intimidating spaces for those without much formal education, and throughout much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries many people did not live within easy reach of a well-stocked library anyway. While there was a flurry of library construction within Dublin during the first decade of the 20thC, rural Ireland was a very different story, and in 1911 it was estimated that only 28% of the population had access to a library. Even where they were built, lack of funding (and civic enthusiasm) often meant that they had few books. Mary Casteleyn has argued that, “in many areas the Carnegie building was used for everything except library purposes. Village bands practised there, temperance meetings were held in them, and they were vandalised. In one library the enterprising caretaker had resorted to burning the books to save himself from being bothered by persistent would-be readers!”. This meant that many people had no practical access at all to reliable or detailed factual information. What they did have increasing levels of access to however was the mass media, and it is therefore not surprising that many publications aimed at a popular readership recognised that providing the various forms of factual information requested by their readers would help them to build and maintain their market share. Indeed, one of the most powerful media empires in Britain was originally founded upon providing exactly this service to readers. Alfred Harmsworth – who established the Daily Mail in 1896 and would go on to be one of the most powerful press barons of the early 20th C – began his publishing career in 1888 by producing Answers to Correspondents (which soon became known simply as Answers). The paper, which became the only serious rival to George Newnes’ Tit-bits magazine in terms of circulation, was based upon the most simple of ideas – readers could write in with their questions, and the papers’ staff would respond with answers. The more interesting of these would be published, and although the paper did contain other material, this provision of answers to queries was the simple but effective basis of its success. That simplicity – and the extent of its success – is in itself an indication of just how difficult it was for many ordinary people to find basic factual information. By contrast, journalists, especially those working in major publishing centres such as London or Dublin, had access to major libraries as well as networks of experts for advice and information.

Ireland did not produce – and probably could not have supported – an entire paper dedicated to answering readers’ queries. But many Irish publications did, over the years, run successful columns answering wide-ranging questions from their readers, or dedicated to providing an advice and information service on particular topics. Tips and advice for everyday activities – especially for domestic tasks – were also prevalent, and constituted a particularly significant feature of the women’s columns run by many papers. In an era without many labour-saving devices, many of these questions and answers revolved around advice on cleaning. How to remove stains from various fabrics without damaging them, how to maintain kitchen ranges, and how to clean household objects ranging from Venetian blinds to ostrich feathers, were all discussed on a more-or-less weekly basis, not only in women’s magazines such as Lady of the House, but also in more general magazines such as Ireland’s Own or the Shamrock, most of which ran household columns (which were of course always targeted at the ‘lady readers’ who were presumed to be naturally interested in such matters). Generalised advice columns giving information on health, beauty, cooking and household management were quick and easy to produce – indeed, in many cases they were one of the easiest types of copy to syndicate, and there are numerous examples of Irish publications printing advice and information columns of this kind which show signs of having been bought in – occasionally even their typeface differed slightly from the rest of the paper, suggesting that such syndicated pieces may even have arrived fully-typeset.

The prevalence of columns giving both factual information and advice in so many publications is also what allowed the boundaries between editorial and advertising to be so blurred, however. With no regulations to control this, there was nothing to prevent publications from using their information and advice columns to endorse specific products, without acknowledging that in many cases they were being paid to do so. For example, Irish Society ran a column entitled ‘Beauty and the Toilet’ which answered readers’ pseudonymous queries on these topics. In 1902, one such reply, to a reader using the name ‘Ideal’, assured her that ‘…it is satisfactory, therefore, to know that fresh air, cleanliness and good food are the best beautifiers, and that the knowledge of how to make the best of oneself can be obtained free from Mrs Pomeroy, of Grafton Street, and that when actual blemishes have to be removed she will do this in the best manner possible, and at moderate charges’. A few pages further on in the paper, a paid advertisement appeared for Mrs Pomeroy’s salon, offering electrolysis for 10/6 per sitting – and in fact the salon was one of Irish Society’s most frequent advertisers. Other readers’ queries were answered with recommendations for products which were also regularly advertised in the paper. Obviously in such cases, it is most likely that the queries themselves were also written by the paper – a possibility never to be discounted in any advice column. However, although faking the questions allowed publications to push products they were being paid to advertise, by definition it didn’t involve real interaction with readers, and from the publications’ perspective, this was the main purpose of such columns, as Harmsworth had so profitably understood when he established Answers.

Among Irish publications, the closest equivalent to this form was in columns such as the Shamrock’s regular ‘A Conversazione’ column. Like many others of its type, it did not print the original queries, merely addressing the answers to correspondents’ pseudonyms (which in some cases leaves the reader intrigued about the context or details of the question asked, an effect which was no doubt deliberate). So in April 1900 for example, just one column included factual information on the history and manufacture of screws, the history and use of siphons, and detailed geographical information about Lake Superior. More intriguingly, it also advised a reader known only as ‘Mona’ that ‘a young lady possessing true dignity of character will never take further notice of a gentleman who has once openly slighted her, much less seek or endeavour to court his society…we would advise you to leave the letter unanswered’, which presents a number of tantalising possibilities as to the slight Mona had suffered. A few years later, the Shamrock’s rival the Irish Emerald introduced a slightly different format into their own advice column, by enlisting readers to assist in answering queries. This was done by printing numbered questions in one part of the column, and then adding numbered answers (always a week or two behind the questions) in another. The magazine explained that, ‘the object of the Correspondence Page is to enable our Readers to keep in touch with, and be of use to, one another, by giving information of questions of general interest and by helping others to procure articles etc which they may require.’ Operating like a (very) nascent social media platform, this column allowed readers to answer each other’s queries as well as arrange exchanges of items such as sheet music and books. The advantage for readers was, obviously, that they could use these columns to seek information which was genuinely difficult to find for most ordinary people without easy access to expensive reference books. The advantage for magazines such as the Irish Emerald was that it was another way of encouraging readers to write back to the publication, the early 20thC version of interactivity upon with ‘new journalism’ depended. In this way, advice and information columns functioned for publications in the same way as letters columns and the wildly popular competitions most of them ran regularly – by providing a channel for readers to correspond with their paper, feel a sense of ownership of it, and thus deepen their brand loyalty, ensuring future sales. To this end, magazines were eager to provide platforms for whatever kind of interaction readers were likely to respond to most enthusiastically and consistently, even if this meant supporting wildly varied requests. So where in March 1907 ‘Clogheen Reader’ wrote to the Irish Emerald that he ‘would be much obliged if some reader would or could tell him if Mr WB Yeats is a Nationalist’ (sadly I never spotted any response to that tricky question), in September of the same year a query about the size of the human head received the following reply from another reader:

“the average adult head has a circumference of fully 22 inches. The average adult hat is fully six and three-quarters size…and the professors of colleges generally wear seven and one-eight to seven and three-eights sizes….and according to an authority, ‘no lady should think of marrying a man with a head less than 20 inches in circumference’. People with heads under 19 inches are mentally deficient, and with heads under 18 inches invariably idiotic”.

As well as encouraging readers to measure their heads (and admit it, you’re thinking about it), both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald also provided more practical advice for young readers keen to make use of their intellect. From the last quarter of the 19thC, all branches of the United Kingdom Civil Service (including central government departments as well as organisations such as the Post Office and Police Service) introduced entrance examinations open to anyone who paid the relatively modest fee to sit them. While these examinations – covering grammar, composition, mathematics, languages and accountancy, depending upon the posts being recruited for – obviously favoured those who’d had the opportunity of a proper secondary education, they were nevertheless the single most dramatic mechanism of social mobility ever introduced into British or Irish society, and they loomed very large in the lives of ambitious school-leavers, especially perhaps those for whom a clerical job of any kind was a significant economic and social aspiration compared to the work available to their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. And those were precisely the young readers appealed to by the popular penny papers, so it is not surprising that some of the information and advice most consistently offered by these publications related to entrance examinations – not just announcements of their timing and location, but assistance with the quite intense academic preparation required for them. Well before the end of the 19thC, both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald ran weekly columns (usually entitled ‘Our Students’) providing an astonishing level of information and even one-to-one support for readers planning on sitting examinations for jobs as various as Post Office Sorters, Third Division Clerkships in the Indian Civil Service, Dublin Police Court Clerkships or Girl Typists. A full account of each posts’ requirements and their pay and progression was given – for example in 1901, Police Court Clerkships in Dublin were open to entrants aged 17-25, with Second-class clerks receiving £80pa rising by £5 a year to £150, while First-class clerks got £180, rising by £10 a year to £300 (an enormous sum for those from a lower-middle class background, and probably unachievable for most). As well as this information, the columns – which were often ‘managed’ by the owners of correspondence colleges specialising in preparing candidates for entrance examinations – advised readers where to buy text books for exam preparation, set practice essay titles and mathematical problems based on past papers for each level of examination, and even invited readers to post in their practice efforts to be individually ‘marked’, the feedback and suggested mark being printed in subsequent weeks. These columns, whose longevity suggests they were very popular with readers, were obviously regarded by the owners of correspondence colleges as useful advertising for their businesses, but their usefulness for the Shamrock and Irish Emerald was even greater – the columns occasionally even described readers who had been successful in examinations with their support as ‘Shamrock boys’. This phrase managed to fuse the concept of ‘school spirit’, which was so central to the wildly popular school stories of the era, to the relationship between a penny paper and its readers.


Mary Casteleyn, A History of Literacy and Libraries in Ireland: the long traced pedigree (1984: Gower Publishing, Aldershot).

Stephanie Rains, ‘Going in for Competitions Active readers and magazine culture, 1900–1910’, Media History, 21 (2015) :138-149

Thrilling Tales and Shocking Stories – Story Papers in Ireland

‘Story papers’ were one of the great publishing successes of the late 19thC and early 20thC, and one of the clearest results of the expanded readership for the popular press created by universal education. Published weekly at a penny or halfpenny each, they were aimed primarily at juvenile working-class and lower-middle-class readers (both boys and girls) but also a broader family readership, and were one of the principal forms of entertainment for this huge readership in a pre-cinema age. As their name implies, they specialised in fiction, mainly short and serial stories, which ranged from adventure to romance and historical fiction to school stories, depending upon the particular paper. They also published competitions, advice columns, jokes (of the ‘my dog has no nose’ variety) and factual articles which were informal but informative.

Their entire format and style was designed to appeal to younger readers who were not highly-educated (most people had left school by the age of 14, if not before), but who were literate and enjoyed reading. Their leisure-time however was limited, as working hours were long. Short stories could be read quickly on the tram or during a lunch-hour, and gripping serials with cliff-hanger plot-twists were designed to entice readers back for the following issue – when early cinema produced serials which ended with the heroine tied to train tracks, they were borrowing this convention from the story papers. It was a lucrative and therefore crowded market, and as an Irish Packet editorial put it in 1903, ‘the Editor has a hungry, fastidious and capricious public to feed from week to week. He is anxious to increase the number of his patrons. This he can only hope to do by an abundant and unceasing supply of good things. If there is a falling off of good fare, they may transfer their custom elsewhere’. The market was dominated by the British giants such as the Boy’s Own Paper and its sister the Girl’s Own Paper, as well as the Gem and the Magnet (in America, the Argosy appealed to a similar readership). All of these papers were distributed widely in Ireland (although there are some indications that the Boy’s Own Paper was banned in some Catholic schools on the grounds that it was an agent of Protestant evangelism) and benefited from huge economies of scale by comparison to smaller Irish rivals. They could afford more famous authors, better illustrations and bigger competition prizes.

Story papers were quite controversial, however. They were descendants of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the mid-19thC, which had focused on gruesome tales of crime and criminals, and were the focus of one of the first moral panics of the mass media age as it was claimed that they glamorized criminals and even led to copycat crimes. Late 19thC story papers (sometimes referred to as ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’) were the newer, cheaper equivalents with bigger print runs and readerships, and were still viewed with suspicion by many for their influence on young readers – as has often remained the case, young, female or working-class readers were presumed to be easily influenced. In Ireland, the fact that British story papers were circulated so widely was an added source of controversy. Nationalists accused them of being a major source of Anglicisation, while Catholic ‘social purity’ groups such as the Irish Vigilance Association objected to their sensational plots and portrayal of violence and more occasionally sex. DP Moran, author of a famous Leader editorial in 1900 which denounced British imports as being ‘…penny papers…saturated with grossness and which mainly circulate among boys…’, also wrote a (really not very good) 1905 novel, Tom O’Kelly, in which the centre of all cultural malaise in his fictional town of Ballytown was the newsagents’ shop which sold British story papers.

Despite the popularity and scale of British imports, Ireland had its own story papers (each of which will be discussed in future posts). The oldest of these were the Irish Emerald and the Shamrock, both descendants from earlier publications of William O’Brien’s Young Ireland movement, and both published weekly from the late 19thC until around the end of World War One. In the early 20thC, these were joined by Ireland’s Own (one of the great survival stories of Irish media history, given that it is still in existence) and more briefly by the Irish Packet, which was a story paper subsidiary of the Freeman’s Journal. All of these focused upon short and serial fiction, like their British counterparts, but firmly marketed themselves as Irish story papers for Irish youth. One way that they did this to publish mainly Irish fiction, set in Irish locations and dealing with Irish themes and plotlines. They were each slightly different in their precise content and editorial tone, but they all had certain common features. Most of their readers were probably boys and young men between 15-25, but they also published material intended to appeal to young female readers and a broader ‘family’ market.

Irish story papers were able to exploit the powerful alliance of national and religious agendas within the ‘social purity’ movement’s condemnation of imported British papers. Where the British papers were accused of sensationalism and immorality as well as undermining Irish culture and identity, their Irish rivals were keen to present themselves as wholesome and patriotic alternatives. For example, the first ever issue of Ireland’s Own (in November 1902) announced that it was ‘…intended to counter-act the influence and displace a great portion of the vicious and undesirable literature that reaches this country weekly…Our fiction, whether Irish or otherwise, will be pure, and ennobling in the lessons it conveys’. A future post about Ireland’s Own will explore just how ‘pure and ennobling’ some of this material really was, but with British publications providing much easier targets for purity campaigners, Irish story papers were able to position themselves without much difficulty as patriotic and wholesome publications for young readers. This was, for the more successful, one of the ways that they were able to counteract the competition from their British rivals.

Despite being primarily focused on fiction, story papers also published other material. They regularly ran reader competitions – ranging from story-writing to jokes, limericks and word-games – which were clearly popular with readers but also served to boost sales by requiring the submission of coupons cut from the paper with each entry. This meant each entrant to a competition had to buy their own copy, as opposed to sharing and swapping papers within groups of friends or family, a common activity among young working-class readers in order to increase the number of papers they had access to. Readers were invited to ‘write back’ in other ways too – editorial columns in story papers tended to be chatty and informal, and often included readers’ letters, queries and suggestions. They also ran ‘notes and queries’ columns to answer readers’ questions, and ‘exchange and mart’ columns for readers to trade books, sheet-music and other items. Many of them also ran career and educational advice columns – which were particularly pertinent to their core readership of school-leavers and young workers. They placed a particular emphasis on civil service, police and post-office examinations, some even running ‘student’ columns coaching readers about past papers and inviting them to submit composition pieces to be marked, as well as advising on exam technique. All of these kinds of columns offer insights into the lives of ordinary young people at the turn of the 20thC, as well as into the business models, style and content of the Irish popular press of the time, and there will be more detailed discussions of most of them here in the future. But overall, they indicate the lively relationship between story papers and their readers in Ireland – in keeping with the informal and interactive tone of the early 20thC ‘new journalism’, editors encouraged readers to consider themselves part of a community, and it is clear that many readers did so. This may well have been crucial to the survival of Irish story papers in the face of imported British rival publications which could offer stories by more famous authors and competitions with bigger prizes – Irish papers not only ran stories with Irish plots, names and settings, but their smaller circulation also offered a more intimate world of editors who might actually print your letter and competitions you might actually win.

They all published more fiction than anything else, however – meaning that in the early years of the 20thC when the Irish Emerald, the Shamrock, Ireland’s Own and the Irish Packet were all being published every week, they were collectively producing at least 50,000 words of fiction a week; a daunting prospect for the contemporary researcher, especially given that yet more short fiction was also being published in Irish women’s magazines, trade journals and even newspapers, as well as all that appearing in the imported British publications! One of the conclusions we can easily draw from this, however, is that there was an almost unquenchable thirst for narrative among readers of this period. I commented in a previous post that literacy levels rose significantly – and expanded across class boundaries – during the last quarter of the 19thC. But that statement does no justice to the sheer quantity of reading material being consumed each week by ordinary Irish readers by the turn of the 20thC. At the time, it was often remarked that the Irish bought comparatively few books. Even if this was true (and it might have been, given that average incomes in Ireland were low, and books were still relatively expensive), it certainly did not mean that the Irish didn’t read. The quantity of short and serial fiction being read in newspapers and magazines each week suggests that for a significant proportion of the population, much of their leisure time was spent reading the short and serial fiction in the story papers.


DP Moran, ‘Gutter Literature’, Leader, 1 September 1900, p. 11.

‘A Chat with the Editor’, Irish Packet, 10 October 1903, p. 32.

Stephanie Rains, ‘“Nauseous Tides of Seductive Debauchery”: Irish Story Papers and the Anti-Vice Campaigns of the Early Twentieth Century’, Irish University Review, 45:2 (November 2015), pp. 263-280.